Northern Ireland

Internment: Protestant internees to sue UK state

The High Court in Belfast
Image caption A High Court judge ruled the Protestant ex-internees can proceed with their compensation case against the British authorities

A group of 19 Protestant men jailed without trial in Northern Ireland in the 1970s has been granted leave to take legal action against the UK state.

The government introduced a policy of detention without trial, known as internment, in 1971 during the height of the Troubles.

Most of those interned were from a Catholic background.

The 19 men allege the government abused its power by locking them up in a bid to balance mass Catholic internment.

Lawyers for one of the men, James Wilson, claim there was an unlawful policy that only came to light decades later.

Mr Wilson was arrested in 1973 and spent more than a year in custody.

He is suing the Northern Ireland Office, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Ministry of Defence and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

Government legal representatives tried to have the case thrown out for being brought out of time.

But at the High Court in Belfast, a judge refused to dismiss Mr Wilson's claims for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and misfeasance in public office.

He said: "They may or may not succeed later when the evidence is tested and the appropriate legal test is applied to the facts which have been established, but it cannot be said at this stage that these claims will fail."

Mr Wilson's barrister said that the alleged policy remained concealed until official papers were released under the 30-year rule.

It was contended that he was interned because he was a Protestant, in order to demonstrate the British state was not just detaining Catholics under that system.

Imprisonment without trial began when soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers swept into Catholic areas as part of Operation Demetrius in August 1971.

More than 300 people were initially detained in what was then called the Long Kesh prison camp outside Lisburn, County Antrim.

They were accused of involvement with the IRA.

It would take another 18 months before anyone from a loyalist background was interned.

Mr Wilson is one of 19 Protestants taking legal action against the authorities. Two of the others have died since proceedings were issued.

The court heard that at the time Mr Wilson was involved in political activity.

But his barrister said the government wrongly equated that with involvement in terrorism.

Mr Wilson was never prosecuted for any offence during his internment.

The judge was also told that a consultant psychiatrist has assessed Mr Wilson as having suffered a related injury.

Counsel for the police and Northern Ireland Office said that the action should have been issued years earlier.

But rejecting attempts to have the action halted, the judge said: "I accept... that it is arguable that the plaintiff's right of action was concealed by fraud on the part of the defendants, or some of them."

Outside court Mr Wilson's solicitor, Kevin Winters of KRW Law, said: "Today's ruling paves the way for this important case to go to a full hearing.

"It's not only significant for the 19 ex-internees affected but is also relevant to legacy litigation generally.

"Since the start of this case two of the men involved have died. We hope that the case will now move very quickly given the age profile of the remaining plaintiffs."